14 Sep 2011

Alpha males, beta males (... and other choices to be discovered)


A couple of days ago Melinda Beck at The Wall Street Journal posed the question Are Alpha Males Healthy?. The subtext reads Aggressiveness aids rise to top, but the stress can harm a body.

First I can't help but feel that this subject is in some way triggered by the dramatic economic downturn currently unfolding. The implicit notion here perhaps is that wealthy "alpha males" are more stressed out for having unjustly accumulated so much materialism which has caused only crushing war, poverty, disease and death among the rest of the world's population. Naturally "betas" in this sense can only hope that such karma honestly plays out. If "alpha" is meant covertly to hint at sociopathy, then siding with author and psychologist Martha Stout on this matter, such people by nature lack empathy; they seldom if ever learn their lesson or feel sorry for what they do. Certainly there's no questioning that sociopathic people aren't healthy.

But what exactly does "alpha male" or "beta male" mean in this context anyway? We must accurately define it first before we can have a handle on the vague question. It can't just be about aggression since we're often in a variety of different roles from minute to minute in our complex society. As one commenter, James M. Smith, comically puts it:
"'Alpha' in our society is context-based. I know a guy who's an alpha tax accountant, but he's an omega at flag football.
One possible dichotomy that we can use to cleave through this subject is the difference between "healthy competition" and "unhealthy competition." We may argue that moderation is the winning hand at the end of the day in all things. Unhealthy competition is the kind of competition that loses balance and context, thereby leading to stress because it so opposes our evolutionary development and it can lead to many detrimental errors in judgment. Cyberspace is currently debating whether or not our overall economic and social systems are just such an unbalanced form of competition that pits one person against another mentally and physically. An alternative to that format exists, "cooperative competition," that constantly reminds us that we're all in this together against chaos. It's a much saner form of competition that doesn't lead to the widespread isolation observed in extremely competitive societies. Afterall a common expression is "It's lonely at the top!" although it's just as lonely at the middle and bottom if all a society does is wage war with itself to keep up with the Jones's.

Finally, there's a lurking sexism in the whole text. Notice that females are being corralled into a common stereotype and linked to "passive cooperation," while males are likewise associated with "aggressive competition." Let's get real: aggression is not linked with gender. And for that matter, aggression means more than just brute strength. Gender differences are by and large sensationalized by the media. Measured overlaps between the brains of both cardinal sexes aren't taken into account enough in intelligent discussion. If we can all accept that there are "alpha females" present in society too, why then is the title emphasizing males and their aggression as if to say that males have a monopoly on this behavioural trait?

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